Jan Baptist van Helmont, pioneer of modern medicine
Jan Baptist van Helmont, the alchemist, mystic and physician, was born in Brussels on 12 January 1579. He completely rejected Aristotle's logic-based theories that were prevalent at the time, together with the humoral methods of the Greek-Roman physician Galen. Van Helmont swore by empiricism and experimental methods, a scientific approach in other words. Yet mysticism and magic were never far away. And it was him who invented the word ‘gas’.
At the age of 17, he had already achieved his degree in philosophy at Leuven University. Even so, Van Helmont's particular interest was science. In 1599, he graduated in Leuven cum laude as a doctor of medicine. Finding such book-based knowledge outlandish, he resigned in 1600 and went travelling around Europe for five years in order to become a better doctor.
In 1609, he married Margaret van Ranst, the daughter of a noble family. His leading social status secured his financial stability and esteem in higher secular and religious circles. The latter was later to do him a great service. He claimed that the healing effect of relics was caused by magnetism, believed strongly in the existence of the ‘Philosopher's Stone’ as a remedy for all kinds of illness and longevity, wrote about supernatural beings taking over the human body, attempted to make medicine from plants, minerals and animal derivatives using distillation and fermentation techniques ... The Inquisition condemned his alchemistic experiments, related writings and meddling with magic and put van Helmont on the wanted list. Initially, he escaped persecution, but when Galilei was convicted in 1634, he too was detained. However, his father-in-law was able to bail him out for a while. After a short spell jailed in a Franciscan cloister in Brussels, he was finally set free. He was, however, strictly forbidden to continue publishing, and all of his work from the period 1599 to 1634 was confiscated. It was never to be returned. Only in 1642 did the church grant him another imprimatur.
He was therefore clearly on his way to finding a balance between alchemy and what was to become modern medicine. He was the first to apply chemical processes in healthcare, for example, the treatment of heartburn with alkaline solutions. He also discovered an early version of the law relating to the conservation of mass. Furthermore, he was the first to identify the existence of different gases, such as carbon dioxide.
Shortly before his death, on 30 December 1644 in Vilvoorde, Jan Baptist van Helmont wrote a treaty on how to treat all kinds of illnesses and injuries, which became a fundamental part of modern medicine. His white marble statue stands on the Place du Nouveau Marché aux Grains in Brussels